Refugee family at bus station

While much of the world’s attention is focused on Syria’s refugees, there is another refugee crisis that no one is talking about: Central Americans fleeing the worst violence in the world outside of an active war zone.

With the recent controversial detention of 121 Central American women and children by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), this refugee crisis is gaining notice.

Why are these families facing deportation? Without legal representation, many legitimate claims for asylum go ignored. Whether a person receives legal representation or not is the single greatest factor in whether they attain asylum, according to the American Immigration Council — not whether their circumstances warrant the protection of asylum, but whether they are able to explain those circumstances in the format the courts require. Less than 2 percent of asylum seekers without a lawyer obtain asylum, while more than 25 percent of those with lawyers prevail. All asylum seekers should have a fair chance to make their case.

Instead of removing vulnerable families, the Obama administration should ensure a complete and fair process for each asylum seeker, including legal counsel.

The highest immigration court in the U.S. just affirmed the importance of a complete and fair process for asylum seekers two weeks ago. The Board of Immigration Appeals halted the deportation of 12 of the 121 women and children, because the appeal process in their cases was not finished.

Immigration attorneys with the CARA Pro Bono Family Detention project say that many of the women, not only these 12, have been denied the right to legal counsel and a full hearing of their cases.

Last summer, I volunteered with Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, in Texas, assisting women and children in detention. Their stories echo in my mind as I hear of the families detained by ICE in recent days, the largest enforcement action yet to specifically target Central American families.

One woman, I recall, fled because a jailed gang leader required her to present herself at the prison for his sexual use. If she did not comply with this “conjugal visit,” he said his men would kill her son in front of her, and then rape her and kill her, too.

A relative helped her borrow money, and she fled. While she was on her way to the United States — the only place she had family to receive her — she learned that the gang had come to her house, and not finding her there, had killed her younger cousin, instead. What will happen to her, if she is deported?

Under both United States law and international law, it is wrong to send a refugee or an asylum seeker back to their persecutors. That’s not the kind of country we are.

My own mother came to the United States fleeing tyranny — she and her Jewish father and her Christian mother escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. Many others were turned away.

In retrospect, it is easy to see the shame of turning away Jews fleeing Nazism. Yet what about today’s refugees? Do we only have 20/20 vision in hindsight?

Some will say that these women and children are economic migrants, not true refugees. Yet there is poverty in many parts of Latin America, without producing the numbers of migrants now fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Nicaragua, Honduras’ neighbor, is just as poor, yet not as violent — and so we have not seen a surge in the numbers of Nicaraguan families and unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States.

Since 2008, there has been a fivefold increase in asylum petitions from northern Central America in the U.S., and an astonishing thirteen-fold increase in asylum petitions within Central America and Mexico. This would not happen for purely economic reasons.

It is not illegal to seek asylum. It is not illegal to flee for your life, whether from the horror that is Syria or the violence of transnational gangs south of the border. The San Francisco Bay Area has a tradition of providing sanctuary to those who need it.

Asylum seekers deserve a meaningful chance, with legal representation, to demonstrate the dangers that they fled. If we don’t provide that, we may be deporting them to their deaths.

Janey Skinner is a Richmond resident. Before becoming a community college teacher, she worked for several years in Latin America, supporting human rights.

Janey Skinner volunteered with RAICES through the UU College of Social Justice  in the summer of 2015.